Teach For America and the Teacher Bashing Movement are inextricably linked. Of course the most influential teacher basher of all, Michelle Rhee, is a TFA alum and former staff member. At the alumni anniversary summits, panels are packed with notable teacher basher friends of TFA like former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan and former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein.
I was a 1991 TFA corps member and back then I was pretty naive about the skill of experienced teachers. I was pretty sure that I’d be better than veteran teachers because I was a math major so I knew much more math than the average teacher. Also as a graduate of Tufts University I felt that I had something a little extra to bring to the table when I became a teacher. Back then, Teach For America was only in its second year and it was a naive organization too. They didn’t do much to make me think I was wrong about veteran teachers.
Of course nobody goes into teaching their first year thinking “I hope I can be just like that burned out veteran who has been teaching for 30 years and has used the same lesson plans for the past 10 years.” The fuel for young teachers is enthusiasm and the desire to be a superstar who drastically alters the course of his student’s lives.
One of the tricky balancing acts in training impressionable new teachers is to try to ground them in reality while not draining them of their enthusiasm. An enthusiastic teacher who doesn’t have a clue about how schools work or how kids learn is going to make a lot of mistakes in the beginning of the first year. As you only get once chance to make a first impression, by the time the new teacher figures out what he or she did wrong, it is often too late. The year is sometimes unsalvageable.
If a new teacher believes that veteran teachers are lazy, he will ignore some of the valuable suggestions the veteran offers. Teacher bashing actually sets rookie teachers (and the students of those rookie teachers) up for failure.
Elisa Villanueva-Beard has been the sole CEO of TFA since 2015. Throughout the years I have written about her various speeches and op-eds. A theme that appears in all of her speeches and writings is that there is a dangerous ‘status quo’ in education where experienced educators deprive students of equitable education because they have low expectations for their students. This is also the fundamental idea that fuels most of the reform movement. Basically, experienced teachers are lazy (most reformers make the leap to blame this on the job protections of unionized teachers, though EVB does not generally mention teacher’s unions). When politicians believe that experienced teachers are lazy, it makes them want to make policies that expand budgets for things like Teach For America. Teacher bashing has been a very marketable thing for TFA.
A few days ago, Teach For America tweeted this five minute video message from Elisa Villanueva-Beard to the new TFA corps members. I’m going to analyze this now, so if you want to watch it for yourself before seeing what I think of it, here’s a chance to do that.
She says there are three ‘big things’ that got her through her first year:
Big Thing #1: She was not alone in this.
The first thing she mentions, at the one minute mark, is the “incredible teachers at her school” who had wisdom and who she learned from. This sentiment will soon be contradicted in her Big Thing #2 and Big Thing #3. Then she talks about the TFA community including the various alumni that have had leadership roles in school districts.
Big Thing #2: All students have great potential.
This is an important sentiment and something that encourages new teachers to work hard so their kids can achieve their potential. And this is a message that can be delivered without teacher basing. But at the 2:23 mark, EVB says:
“I believe what distinguishes the Teach For America community and all of those who are on the same mission as we are is that we have a radical belief in the potential of our children. Be unshakable about that belief and especially when others tell you that its not possible to do the kind of work that you are trying to do that our children are worthy of.”
When she says ‘distinguishes’ she is implying that most people who are not in the TFA community do not believe in the potential of children. To make this even more clear, she warns the TFA trainees to ignore the ‘others’ — namely the lazy non-TFA experienced teachers — who say that is is not possible to teach those students.
This advice, if taken too faithfully, can lead to problems for the new teacher. For example, a common mistake of new teachers is to try to teach a week’s worth of lessons in one period. I know they do this because they have ‘high expectations’ and don’t want to underestimate how much their students can learn in one period. But teaching too much material in one day can backfire — students can get lost and lose confidence in themselves and in the teacher. The teacher inevitably has to ‘reteach’ the next day. This reveals to the students that the teacher doesn’t know what he is doing and it makes the rest of the year a struggle. If a veteran teacher looks over the new teacher’s lesson plans and says “You might want to break this up into a few lessons,” — well, it depends what that new teacher has been trained to think about veteran teachers. If the new teacher has been told that veteran teachers have low expectations then the new teacher will likely ignore the veteran teacher’s advice and have to deal with the aftermath of the failed lesson.
Big Thing #3: Anchor yourself in the truth of what our children are up against.
She starts with an erroneous statistic that only 50% of low-income students will graduate high school even though the most recent data puts it at over 75% compared to an 80% national average.
Here is what she says, at 3:13, about the cause and remedy for this
“The truth that our children do not need people around them, and especially their teachers, who feel sorry for them. Instead they need teachers who build authentic relationships that turn into a deep care and a love that will show up for them and do what ever its going to take to make sure they get what they deserve.”
And here it is implied that many non-TFA teachers feel sorry for their students rather than work hard for them. This is mainly a continuation of Big Idea #2 — experienced teachers are lazy because they don’t believe their students can learn. Experienced teachers use their energy on pity for their students rather than working hard to teach them.
There is nothing wrong with the three Big Ideas, themselves. It is the clarification of these Big Ideas and the subtext that the very impressionable new recruits are sure to absorb, that is the problem.
One of the most ironic things about Elisa Villanueva-Beard is that she makes these oversimplified claims about how the problem in education is the status quo with low expectations while her own husband runs the YES prep schools in Houston which have a large number of TFA teachers. One of those schools, according to the latest 2018 rankings, is an F rated school and out of 328 rated schools in Houston, it is rated 312th.
How can this be if the main thing needed to improve educational outcomes is to have high expectations?
Teach For America should not be directly or indirectly teacher bashing as seen in this video. Back in 1991 when I trained with TFA, they, like their recruits, were very naive. Back then, they were not wise enough to know not to do this. But now, almost 30 years later, they need to give the new trainees a more sophisticated picture of the issues.
Teach For America, and Elisa Villanueva-Beard in particular, need to stop pushing the Michelle Rhee narrative that low-expectations by experienced teachers is the main problem plaguing American schools.